MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The owner of a recycling company accused in a lawsuit of dumping thousands of tires in a neighbor's lot during a city collection program told a judge Wednesday it's not his responsibility to get rid of them.
Tens of thousands of tires collected by the city are still sitting on an empty lot in South Memphis. The city hired a company called Refurban to collect the tires back in January during a tire redemption program.
But now Refurban is being sued in Shelby County Chancery Court, accused by the landowner of storing them illegally, and Shelby County is also seeking answers about back taxes they say the company owes.
A group called Shraddha Saburi Samidha, or SSS, owns the lot on Florida Street where the tires are being stored. A representative calls them a religious group, focused on helping to feed the hungry in Memphis and India.
Tony Fletcher with SSS said the group discovered the tires were on their property when they made an inspection in February.
In a lawsuit, SSS accuses Refurban of illegally dumping the tires on their lot.
In fact, Refurban owner Devin James admits he asked SSS if he could lease the land next door last year, and they said no.
But he also says the city called him in January with an emergency: Liberty Tire had just dropped out of the redemption program, and they asked Refurban to step in.
James says he sent a text to the leader of SSS, who told him to go ahead.
"There’s at least three specific references saying, ‘Use the property as you need before we build the soup kitchen,’” James said of the text messages.
But now, other people in SSS say that should’ve never happened, and more than two months later, the tires are still there.
Under oath Wednesday, James told a judge it’s not his responsibility to dispose of them. He says the city only hired him to store them.
That means, according to lawyers, this lawsuit could get ever bigger.
“Looks like you got the city, county involved, Refurban, Mr. James, Liberty Tire involved. Unfortunately my client was kept out of the loop on all of this,” said Robert Reid, the attorney for SSS.
Last week, city officials said Refurban had to get rid of the tires.
But Wednesday, the city said it's taking care of the tire removal, and it's going to cost more than anticipated — about $20,000.
"With the help of Memphis residents, the city was able to remove 50,000 tires from our streets. We're currently in the process of moving the tires from the property on Florida, so that the they can be properly recycled," said Ursula Madden, the city's chief communications officer. "It's going to cost a little more than we anticipated, but it's worth it to help make our city a little cleaner."
Testimony in this lawsuit continues Thursday morning.
Refurban was also a topic of discussion Wednesday by Shelby County commissioners.
The commission said James went before them Feb. 11, touting his work on the tire redemption program, and was awarded $15,000 in grant money. The county grant matched a state grant to buy equipment for the business.
Turns out, Refurban owes more than $20,000 in delinquent property tax according to the county trustee's office, and the commission is considering delaying the grant until it's paid.
A county committee deferred a vote on the matter for two weeks.